Several of the brethren last week enjoyed a pilgrimage to Lourdes with our parishes of the Holy Name of Jesus and Our Lady Immaculate. For most of us, it was our first visit to that once small village on the bank of the Gave in the foothills of the Pyrenees, which, since our Lady appeared to St Bernadette in 1858, has become one of the largest and most loved shrines to our Blessed Mother the world over.
Our Lady appeared to this young girl several times over a number of weeks; the content of what she said, as ever, was very direct, and perhaps difficult for our modern ears. “I do not promise to make you happy in this world, but the next,” she said. Bernardette knew much misery in this world, coming, as she did, from a destitute family. It can be very easy to distort the Catholic religion into what Pope Francis has called a “compassionate NGO”, a mere vehicle to improve our financial lot here and now, and not concentrate on the essentials, that is, getting to heaven: to enjoy the Divine Life of the Blessed Trinity for all eternity. I remember my old (now deceased) scripture lecturer’s magisterial phrase: “the Kingdom is the active reign of God on Earth”. Our eternal happiness can only be found when we unite our wills to the Will of God. The so-called “joy of conversion” is not found in any emotional experiences we might have in this life – indeed, if we use this as a measuring-stick, one must disagree entirely with the principle that conversion is joyful; quite the opposite, in fact – but in our person finding its ultimate fulfillment in heaven: the way we live this life here on earth is the way we will work out our salvation. Or not.
“Penance, penance, penance,” Our Lady also said. Our Blessed Mother wants us to be penitent. That is, to weep for our many sins which wound her Son every day, and beg Him for His forgiveness. And because Our Lady wants us above all things to be with her Son, she knows the best ways for us to get to Him. She is the perfectly loving mother, but she is no push-over! Penance and humility – humiliations are the fruit of humility, of course – are the tried and tested means she lovingly encourages us to abide by. Bernadette humiliated herself by eating the grass in the cave, and covering herself with mud – much like how the ancient patriarchs and more modern saints have thrown ashes on themselves and recited penitential prayers and psalms. Remember our Lord’s own words to us: he would much rather we were at the back of church on our knees, our eyes cast down, saying “have mercy on me, a sinner”, that by lauding ourselves and our achievements like the Pharisees do. Our Lady wants us to do this as well, because He wants it. And also, she wants us to pray for other sinners, who, like us, find it difficult – or perhaps even flatly refuse – to turn back (convert) to God. “Pray for sinners”, she says. This is something that has perhaps fallen by the wayside in the wider church today a little. Our own Order of Prémontré is, in part, dedicated to penance, which is why we wear woollen habits, an ancient symbol of penance. There are wonderful opportunities in Lourdes to perform many acts of penance, small or large, according to our ability: including all the time standing around waiting for things to happen! but especially the Stations of the Cross, which are very steep, and the gravel is certainly sharp! Many pilgrims kneel on the floor – the best way to pray – in front of the grotto, and kiss the floor, as did Bernadette.
Lourdes is perhaps best known for the water. There is a small spring in the grotto (called locally, Massabielle, meaning in the dialect, rather fabulously, “Old Mass”). Our Lady said: “Go to the spring and drink of it, and wash yourself there.” Water is a very important symbol in our religion – and beyond. Water gives us life when we drink it, and keeps us clean when we wash with it; Our Lord commanded that all persons be baptised with it: the one sure route to heaven. The little spring in the grotto is still flowing strongly – and the whole grotto is slightly damp, and little droplets of water occasionally fall from the roof – much sought after by the pilgrims. The spring water is channelled carefully away from the grotto to a great number of taps, where pilgrims may wash in the water, and drink it, and fill up little bottles to take home with them. It is also channelled into baths, where pilgrims may immerse themselves completely in the refreshing water. I think my abiding memory of Lourdes will be this water. Of course, it is fresh mountain spring water, so I should have expected no less, but I was really very surprised by how cleansing and refreshing the water itself felt, not just spiritually, but physically. One really does feel clean afterwards.
Lourdes is also known for being a place of pilgrimage for the sick – the specially loved of God and Our Lady – and the sick and disabled have priority over everyone else in Lourdes. Every day, come rain or shine, there are two processions, a torchlight rosary procession at 9pm, and a Blessed Sacrament procession at 5pm, followed by benediction. Each of these can take about an hour or more, and, at their head, are all the pilgrims who are sick, on stretchers and in wheelchairs. There have been many miracle cures in Lourdes over the years, 68 of which have been declared miraculous – though there have surely been very many more that are not declared for one reason or another. Most of these miracles occur during the Blessed Sacrament procession, and so, I was surprised to discover, in the procession, every day, walk a large number of doctors – many of whom are of no religion – who are on hand to act as “first witnesses” in case anything happens. But whether or not pilgrims are healed of their physical sickness, what is most important is that all pilgrims are able to have an encounter with God, a moment of encouragement on our journey towards death and eternity.
On the rosary procession, when everyone lifted up their candles to Our Lady when we sang her the Regina Caeli, it was wonderful to realise that every person – and there were many hundreds, if not more – has come to Lourdes out of love for Our Lady. Some are very devout, some, perhaps are very shy about their beliefs that are kept in the private sphere, others skeptical about the apparitions or about the Faith in general, some shy, some gregarious, from all walks of life, poor and rich, common and princely, children, humble old ladies, and Princes of the Church – all of them bring their worries, their concerns, their loved ones, their friends, their prayers for their dead friends and relatives, their joys and their sorrows, their Cross; all of them bring these things to this place and they – we – ask Mother to sort it all out for us.
“Be like little children,” Our Lord says. Run to Mother.